A lot of people will tell you to spend as little time as possible in San Jose. These people probably haven’t given San Jose a chance though!
Sure, you probably won’t want to spend more than 2 days there, but there’s still plenty of things to keep you busy for a few days.
Most people will arrive in Costa Rica via San Jose, and it’s a great place to learn a bit about the country. There’s a number of museums that are worth visiting, plus the free walking tour will help you get to know Costa Rican culture and its history.
It’s a city with diverse architecture, ranging from colonial-era mansions, art deco apartments to modern skyscrapers. All of which are surrounded by majestic volcanos and green hills.
The National Theatre is one of the best ways to spend an hour or two in San Jose. If you only have time to do one thing, this is the place to visit.
Dating back to 1891, the National Theatre is considered one of the finest historic buildings in San Jose. You can clearly see this from the outside as you admire the Neo-classical design and intricate statues.
The real ‘wow moment’ is when you step inside. The theatre’s interior is exquisite, decorated with lavish furnishings and beautiful murals.
The guided tours help you to really appreciate the theatre as you walk around the stage and visit the president’s box. They also touch on periods of Costa Rica’s history, giving you a better understanding of the country.
Tours run Monday to Sunday from 9am to 4pm. Tickets cost $2.70.
New to San Jose? Our compact San Jose travel guide shows you the best areas to stay, restaurants you don’t want to miss and many more tips for your visit to San Jose!
#3 Get lost in San Jose Central Market
The San Jose Central Market is like a maze, so don’t worry if you end up getting lost! It’s the best way to see everything.
Unlike other markets, this one actually isn’t overwhelming. The sellers are very relaxed and friendly, rather than pushy. You’ll be able to find stalls selling everything from fresh produce, souvenirs, coffee to traditional herbal medicines and much more.
The market is open from 6:30am to 6pm.
Where to eat in the market?
People eating at local restaurants inside the Central Market
Local vibes at restaurants at the Central Market
A staple dish that you’ll be able to find at every Soda is Casado, a traditional dish in Costa Rica made up of rice, beans, salad, or sometimes pasta, and meat. You can find meals for as cheap as $2!
We’d recommend checking out Soda Tala. The waitresses shout your order to the chefs upstairs, creating a crazy but fun atmosphere in the little restaurant.
You should also stop by Lolo Mora’s Ice Cream. They only sell one flavour of ice cream, but trust us it’s good!
#4 Explore Costa Rica’s National Museum
Even if you don’t plan on going inside the National Museum, the building alone is worth seeing. The museum is set inside the Bellavista Fortress which was built in 1917 and originally used as military barracks.
It’s also now known as the place where former president, Jose Figueres Ferrer, abolished the army in 1948. This moment of time is actually marked on the 10,000 colones banknote.
Inside the museum you’ll find a number of displays on Costa Rica’s history and culture. These range from pre-Columbian times, all the way up to the present day.
There’s plenty of fascinating objects on display that have been unearthed throughout Costa Rica, including the huge bolas de piedra (stone balls) which still remain a mystery.
How to visit
The National Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday, 8:30am-4pm and Sunday 9am-4:40pm. Entrance costs $11 for adults and $6 for students.
#5 Visit some more of San Jose’s museums
As well as the National Museum, San Jose has a number of other museums to explore. You probably won’t have time to visit them all, so here are 2 other museums we do recommend visiting:
The outside of the Jade Museum looks rather grey and cold, but inside the museum, they did a great job at showcasing the jade in its full glory.
The museum is home to over 7,000 pieces of Jade, making it the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade in the world!
Most of the incredible pieces are images of animals and depictions of societal organisation.
The Jade Museum is open Monday to Sunday 9am-5pm. Tickets cost $16.
Pre-Colombian Gold Museum
If you’re wondering, the pre-Columbian stage is the era before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.
The Pre-Columbian Museum is home to one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian gold in Latin America. The artifacts tell the stories of the tribal peoples and civilisations that lived in Costa Rica before it was colonised.
The museum is open from 9:15am-5pm. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $11 for students.
PRO-TIP: You can buy a three-museum pass which costs $33. This will give you access to the Jade Museum, National Museum and Pre-Colombian Gold Museum). You can buy this at the ticket booths at all 3 of the museums.
#6 Buy some souvenirs at the Municipal Craft Market
If you’ve forgotten to get your family and friends souvenirs from your trip to Costa Rica, head to the Municipal Craft Market. This market is slightly better than the Central Market if you’re just looking for souvenirs.
Here you’ll find rows upon rows of little stores that are selling pretty much any souvenir you can think of. There’s paintings, keychains, shot glasses, clothes, jewellery. You name it, you’ll probably be able to find it here.
Make sure to haggle with the original prices of things, as the majority of the time the sellers will be able to go lower.
The Municipal Craft Market is open from 8am to 7pm.
#7 Have one of the best meals of your life at Cocina Eclectica
We mentioned Cocina Eclectica in our ‘where to eat’ section in our Ultimate San Jose Guide, but we couldn’t help but mention it again here too.
Cocina Eclectica isn’t just a place to get some great food, the whole night is an experience!
Instead of a normal restaurant, chef Joanna invites you into her charming home for a 5/6 course meal. There’s no menu. Joanna asks if you have any dietary requirements and then decides what she would like to cook for you.
Over the course of the night, delicious and healthy dishes are brought out. There’s no rush, giving you time to digest before the next course and simply enjoy the ambience of her home.
The food is absolutely spectacular and the whole night, including a drink, will cost around $16!
To book a table you’ll need to send Joanna a Whatsapp message. Her number is +50685292509.
#8 Go on your own brewery tour and try craft beer
When you think of San Jose, you probably don’t think of craft beer, but there’s actually a number of great places to grab a pint.
It’s a great way to spend an evening, hopping between the different breweries, sampling their own home-brewed beers.
If you want to escape the concrete jungle for the day, there are plenty of places to visit just outside of San Jose:
#10 Learn about coffee production in the Central Valley
A lot of us are pretty removed and disconnected from how coffee is made. We crave and indulge in cup of coffee, but rarely give a second thought to how it ended up on our tables.
Which coffee farm should you visit around San Jose?
Costa Rica is one of the best countries to do a coffee and chocolate tour. In Costa Rica, there are around 43,000 coffee farms, with a number of them situated within the Central Valley. This is where you’ll also find San Jose, making a visit to a coffee farm a great day trip.
Finca Rosa Blanca
Finca Rosa Blanca is situated high in the mountains, on the slopes of Poás Volcano and Barva Volcano. Using their 30 acres of rich soil, they produce high-altitude organic coffee that simply tastes amazing!
The farm is focused on sustainable practices, using no pesticides or petrochemicals, just employing effective and natural methods to help the organic coffee flourish.
It’s also more than just a coffee farm. You can stay in their homely and beautifully decorated inn for a few nights, relaxing and soaking in nature.
Hacienda Alsacia farm is one to visit if you’re a Starbucks fan. It’s their first and only coffee farm in Costa Rica.
Their mission is to make growing coffee more profitable for small-scale farms, develop the next generation of disease-resistant coffee, and share information and resources freely with farmers around the world.
Although Starbucks is a big corporation, you’re still helping the little guys and encouraging more big companies to create partnerships with these small-scale farmers.
The 240-hectare farm is located an hour from San Jose, at the base of the spectacular Poás Volcano.
#11 Visit Irazu Volcano and it’s beautiful crater lake
One way to take a break from San Jose is to head to Irazu Volcano just 1.5 hours east of San Jose. It’s actually Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, standing at an impressive 3,432 meters.
It’s also still an active volcano, with its last eruption occurring in 1994. Don’t worry though, you’re completely safe!
You may be thinking, ‘oh wow that’s a long hike’, but you won’t need to do much walking. You can drive to the top and enter through the national park. From the car park, it’s just a short walk to the main crater.
The crater is a massive 1,050 meters in diameter. And if you visit during the rainy season, you’ll be able to see a bright and beautiful blue-green lake at the bottom of the crater. The colour looks almost radioactive!
What else is there to see?
Once you’ve seen the main crater, there is also a smaller, inactive crater called Diego de la Haya.
You can also visit Crater Playa Hermosa (not to be confused with the beach on the west coast of Costa Rica). It’s a huge area of flat lands that is the remains of an old calderic rim. The ground is covered with grey ash and volcano rock, with no vegetation. It’s quite moon-like.
Tickets cost $15 and entrance is between 8am and 2pm, whilst the actual park closes at 4pm.
If you don’t fancy the hassle of getting there yourself from San Jose, you can book this daytour that takes you to two volcanoes, Irazu and Turrialba, for $130 per person.
The tour lasts the whole day and also includes a visit to the Basilica of the Angels Church and a coffee plantation. Alternatively, you can also book a half day trip from San Jose to Irazu Volcano for $99
Slightly longer day trips from San Jose
To fully experience Monteverde and La Fortuna we would recommend staying at least a night or if possible longer. There’s so much to do in both of these places that a day just isn’t long enough.
To find out about more amazing things to do in these two destinations check out our guides:
#13 Day trip to La Fortuna – waterfalls, coffee, ziplining, hot springs + more!
Again, you can also visit La Fortuna independently for the day, but we’d only recommend this if you have a car. Using the bus won’t leave you much time in La Fortuna as you’d have to get the bus by 5pm.
This tour to Arenal Volcano will guarantee a jam-packed, fun day. Here’s a quick breakdown of what the day entails:
A stop and tasting at a coffee plantation
La Paz and San Fernando waterfalls
Iguana bridge to see iguanas, sloths, toucans and monkeys
A traditional Costa Rican lunch
Ziplining through the rainforest
End the day relaxing at the base of Arenal Volcano at Paradise Hot Springs
A delicious dinner
If you’re tight on time, this is definitely the best way to tick everything off your list. And all you have to do is join the tour, sit back and go with the flow.
Barceló hotel blows most other city hotels out of the water. It has amenities usually only found in resorts and for extortionate prices. Here you’ll find an outdoor pool, spa, gym, 3 squash courts and 2 tennis courts. Plus they offer a free airport shuttle.
If you don’t fancy venturing out of the hotel to get some food, no worries! There’s 3 restaurants and a bar on site offering a variety of different cuisines. The rooms are spacious and clean, offering comfortable beds for a good night's sleep.
Isla Verde Hotel is a real gem within the urban jungle that is San Jose. They have so many extras that you wouldn’t expect for the price - a gym, free shuttle to the airport and a great breakfast every morning.
The hotel is ultra-modern, boasting some beautifully designed rooms and seating areas. All of which are very clean and comfortable. If you don’t feel like venturing too far for food, their onsite restaurant selling Cantonese food is highly reviewed!
Eco Stay Hostel can start to feel like home after a while as it has a shared living room, communal kitchen, a lovely garden area, and even barbeque facilities. You can also spend your evenings having a friendly competition of snooker or darts.
The friendly hosts also make you feel at home. Making sure that your room is clean and comfortable, whilst offering their help in any way that they can. The rooms are basic, but nicely decorated and have everything you could need whilst in San Jose.